Homer Wright sat on the sofa next to Johnny Thompson, leaned over and put his arm around him in a warm embrace.
“To me, he’s still ‘The Kid,’” Wright said during an emotional reunion that took place at Thompson’s in Waxahachie in mid-October. “I look at him now and I still see that 12-year-old boy that was trying to survive. Unless you were there, you would have no idea how bad the conditions were for the Italian people during the war. Everyone, including Johnny, thought his family had been killed during the war. He was surviving doing whatever odd jobs he could for the American GIs.
“I remember the outstanding character he displayed – his honesty and loyalty,” said Wright, now 91 and living in North Carolina. “I knew I had to do something to help this kid who had done so much to help the American troops occupying Italy.”
Wright doesn’t like to use the word “smuggle.”
“But I suppose if that’s how you want to look at it, that’s exactly what I did,” he said, recalling how transport ships were arriving to take Americans back to the states following the end of the war in Europe.
In January 1946, Wright’s unit received orders to return stateside. He was determined that he wasn’t going to leave “The Kid” behind. He prepared a duffle bag with rations and if it came down to it, he was going to tell Johnny to get in the bag the transport ship. Instead, he was able to bribe the merchant marine on the quarterdeck who allowed Johnny to board the ship without any questions asked.
Nearly everyone in the unit was in on the operation, and Wright said they all shared rations with him and helped to keep Johnny hidden during the trans-Atlantic voyage that arrived in New York on Feb. 2, 1946.
“I was just trying to do something to help this kid,” Wright recalled. “I later found out that I could have been brought up on a number of international charges – including kidnapping.
“But you know what, I’d do it again,” he said. “Today, I had to chance to visit with his family and meet his wonderful children and grandchildren. They all have remarkable character – the same character that I remember in Johnny when he was just that 12-year-old boy trying to survive a war. I see his life and the legacy he has passed on and yes, I would absolutely do it again knowing all the risks involved.”
It turns out getting Johnny to the shores of America was the easy part. Getting him off the ship turned out to be the real challenge.
The plan was, according to Wright, that the troops would disembark from the ship and Johnny would stay aboard until the coast was clear. As soon as he could safely get off the ship, he was to proceed to Union Station, call Wright’s parents and receive directions on how to travel to their house.
But things didn’t go according to plans.
Johnny was detained.
But instead of being deported back to Italy, he became a national media sensation and his story was featured on magazines and newspapers throughout the nation.
So much, in fact, the Texas Congressional Delegation made Johnny’s case a top priority in Congress, with then Attorney General Tom Clark, a native Texans, demanding Johnny be released and allowed to travel to Texas. In fact, Johnny Thompson is the only known immigrant to receive naturalized citizenship via congressional resolution.
While Wright was the one who made Johnny’s trip to America possible, Johnny’s impact on American GIs dated back to the fall of 1943 when he first met Staff Sgt. Claren “Curly” Thompson with the 36th Infantry Division.
Believed orphaned and struggling to survive, Johnny befriended the arriving Americans in Salerno, Italy, doing translating services and whatever chores and odd jobs they would allow him to do in exchange for scraps of rations or a few cents.
Claren, a Waxahachie native, took a shine to the young boy, unofficially adopting him as his unit took part in the campaign through Italy.
During that time, Claren promised Johnny that if he ever made it to America he’d have a home waiting for him in Texas.
The two had become so close, Johnny’s English included a Texas dialect, so perfect it even made native Texans believe Johnny had lived in Texas his entire life.
“I didn’t know anything about Texas,” Johnny said during a previous Daily Light interview in explaining how he came to become a U.S./Texas and Waxahachie citizen. “But I knew they loved to fight and Thompson was one of the main guys. He was 6-feet, 2-inches and about 240 pounds. I didn’t see anyone who could whip him and he could fight three at a time, so I decided I wanted to be a Texan like Thompson. The Yankees would always stir something up but the Texans would always win.”
After he was granted citizenship, The New York Daily News bought Johnny a plane ticket to Dallas, decked out in cowboy clothing donated by members of the 36th Infantry Division. He arrived in Texas on Feb. 23, 1946, where Texas dignitaries and celebrities, including Claren's mother, A.D. Thompson, met him.
While the adoption was “unofficial” in Italy, Claren “Curley” Thompson made it official in Waxahachie and Johnny changed his last name from Camera to Thompson. Johnny was enrolled at Marvin Elementary School, went on to play sports and participate in all the activities just like every other American student. He graduated from Waxahachie High School in 1952.
The only difference between Johnny and the other students is that Johnny was a national news story, and updates about his life appeared frequently in national magazines and newspapers.
Following high school, Johnny and Oscie Kirkland, his teammate on the Indians football team, joined the Navy. After spending two years in the Navy, both returned to Waxahachie and began careers at the Lofland Company and began raising their families.
“We’ve been friends since school, and we still are today,” said Kirkland, who also attended the October reunion. “Johnny was my supervisor at Lofland. He was a great boss – fair, dedicated always willing to help out to get the job done. He was everything anyone would want from a supervisor. He’s been an even better friend.”
Tears welled in Wright’s eyes as he spoke of “The Kid” he helped nearly 70 years ago – only wanting him to have a better life and an opportunity he didn’t think he would have in post war Italy.
“I really thought if I could get him to the States we could get him in school, perhaps college after he graduated high school and he would go back to Italy,” Wright said. “I visited with his kids today and I realize how blessed he has been to enjoy such a great life. Looking back at my life, I’m very proud I had a hand in making that happen. He is such an outstanding person who has made a tremendous impact on the lives of others here in Texas.”
Speaking solemnly, Wright said this would be his last visit with Johnny, noting Johnny’s failing health.
“I’m 91 years old, and while I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life, I know my days are running short,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t have missed this trip for all the world. I’ve been looking forward to it for some time now. I just wanted to see him one more time.
“It’s not very often we have the chance to see what impact our actions can make on the world,” he said. “Back in 1946 I just thought I was doing the right thing by trying to help a really good kid who had absolutely nothing. Today, I got to see the results of my action and positive ripples that it left over the years. I have a chance to see how his life has changed and he has changed others. Would I do it again? Absolutely.”
While Wright said back in 1946 he had hoped Johnny would join him in North Carolina where he was prepared to adopt him, “Curley” Thompson, who passed away several years ago, made sure Johnny was well taken care of in Waxahachie.
“I’m very proud of Johnny,” Wright said, reaching over and musing Johnny’s hair with his fingers, just like he used to do in Italy when the two first met.
Johnny shook his head and quickly tried to brush his hair back into place, just like he did when he was a kid after accepting the gesture of affection from an American GI.
“To me, he is still ‘The Kid,’” Wright said. “We’re both old men, I know. But when I look at him all I see is this 12-year-old boy with great character and strength in the face of overwhelming adversity. I wouldn’t have missed this trip for anything in the world.”
Contact Neal at email@example.com or 469-517-1470. Follow Neal on Facebook at Neal White – Waxahachie Newspapers Inc., or on Twitter at wni_nwhite.